Top Ten Reasons I Love the Writers Police Academy, Part Two

Top Ten Reasons I Love the Writers Police Academy, Part Two

Last year was my first time at the Writers Police Academy and it was amazing.  I wasn’t sure what to expect this year, but there was no need to fear: the 2017 WPA was awesome.  Here’s why:

1. Road Tripping with Me, Myself, and I. When you drive by yourself, you can roll down the windows while you blare Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”:

“And here I go again on my own
Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known,
Like a hobo I was born to walk alone”

Although with my hair blowing in the wind, I felt I was a little less “hobo” and a little more “Tawny Kitaen”.  But I digress.

Tawny Kitaen "Here I Go Again"

2. Old and New Friends. That song we sang in Brownies said make new friends but keep the old so that’s what I did.  It was great to see my old buddies Shoshona Freedman, Savannah March, Tes Brown, Jim Bennetts, Josh Cejka, and Mike Riegel of the “Riegel Island” Riegels (sorry, inside joke).  Plus, I met some cool new people including Heather Wilson and Rebecca Faye Koss.

Mia Manansala, S.M. Freedman, Jessica Ellis Laine
Mike Riegel & Josh Cejka
Josh Cejka, Jessica Ellis Laine, Rebecca Faye Koss
Laine, Manansala, Bennetts, Cejka, & Riegel
Sarah Bennetts, Jim Bennetts, & Jessica Ellis Laine

I lucked out and got an awesome roomie, Mia Manansala.  Mia and I are both having an excellent year; Mia recently won the William F. Deeck Malice Domestic grant and I found out the week before the WPA that I’d won the Sisters in Crime Eleanor Taylor Bland award.  We were ready to learn a lot at the Writers Police Academy and celebrate a little, too.

Jessica Ellis Laine & Mia Manansala

3. Sisters in Crime President Diane Vallere. It was a great honor to meet SinC President Diane Vallere at Thursday’s reception.  She was amazing and very down-to-earth.  I’d like to give a big shout-out to Sisters in Crime for sponsoring the Writers Police Academy, a great resource for both aspiring and seasoned writers.  Looking forward to seeing all of my Sisters at Bouchercon in October!

Mia Manansala, Diane Vallere, Jessica Ellis Laine

4. Craig Johnson. On Friday morning, I met Craig Johnson, the author of the Longmire series.  He was very friendly and offered up a great speech at the banquet on Saturday night.  It was interesting to hear about his career as a writer and his involvement in the Longmire television series.  Plus, he said “howdy” to me on Twitter and I almost fainted.  

Jessica Ellis Laine & Craig Johnson

5. Shooting Range. I was fortunate enough to shoot both hand guns and long guns at this year’s academy.  I was incredibly impressed by our instructors who had a gentle touch with the people who were nervous about shooting.  They were also good eye candy (LOL).

Jessica Ellis Laine

6. Emergency Driving.  My instructor’s face after my emergency driving session is priceless.  He looks terrified.

Jessica Ellis Laine

7. Martial Arts for Writers. Our instructor, Esoma kung fu master, Howard Lewis, beat the crap out of me as he showed us how to defend ourselves from potential attackers and I liked it.  That is all.

Howard Lewis & Jessica Ellis Laine

8. Gifts and Prizes. As an unexpected bonus, I was given a WPA mug and patch after Saturday’s banquet for referring my roommate, Mia, to this year’s academy which was cool.  Mia and I also purchased raffle tickets and Mia ended up winning two K-9 plush animals.  She graciously gave me the Mason the Retriever doll to take home as a gift for my son.

9. Purcell’s Lounge. There was drinking and music in the hotel bar each night after the academy wrapped up.  It was great to catch up with friends and hear about the classes others had taken.  On Saturday night, we let it all hang out and danced with our favorite dance partners, Colleen and Jill.  One memory I will take to my grave is when a grown-ass man ran out of the bar while screaming these words at me: “Fine!!  You’ve proved your point!!!”  I’m not sure what my “point” was (perhaps that I’m a good salsa dancer which I am) but in any case, I will not stop dancing next year until at least *two* grown-ass men run out of the bar screaming at the top of their lungs.  #goals

Heather Wilson, Josh Cejka, Mia Manansala, Colleen Belongea
Heather Wilson, Jessica Ellis Laine, Mia Manansala, Colleen Belongea
Mia Manansala & Jessica Ellis Laine

10. Kroll’s East. Before leaving Green Bay, Mia and I met up with another mystery writer, Julia Lightbody, at the famous Kroll’s East.  My dining companions, the spaghetti with chili, and the cherry shake were all wonderful.

Mia Manansala, Julia Lightbody, Jessica Ellis Laine

Overall, I had another amazing year at the Writers Police Academy.  I learned a lot, partied a little, and came away with many great ideas for my work-in-progress, The Sundowner.  Special thanks to Lee and Denene Lofland and the instructors, staff, and volunteers at Northeast Technical College for all of their hard work and planning.  I can’t wait to see what will happen at next year’s academy!   

Jessica Ellis Laine

Jessica Ellis Laine is the winner of the 2017 Sisters in Crime Eleanor Taylor Bland award and the 2016 Mystery Writers of America-Midwest Hugh Holton award.  She lives online at


World Building: Why Flaws Matter

World building (generally associated with science fiction and fantasy) is essential for all writers. Whether you’re writing memoir, crime fiction, or romance, your world should come to life for the reader. Think of your world as another character. Good characters have flaws that make them more human and attractive to readers. Here’s why story world flaws are necessary:

  1. If your world isn’t out of whack, you might not have a story. Story world flaws spring from imbalance, instability, or corruption (also referred to as the chaos factor). In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the citizens of Panem’s outer districts live in poverty while the people inside the capital live in splendor. The imbalance of power among its citizens eventually leads to rebellion and revolution.
  2. World flaws create conflict and tension. As punishment for a past rebellion, the government of Panem has instituted a lottery system called the Reaping. Each year, citizens are selected from the Reaping to participate in a televised death match called the Hunger Games.
  3. Faults create dilemmas that must be solved. Prim, the younger sister of Katniss, is selected as a participant in the Hunger Games. To save Prim’s life, Katniss takes her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games, creating a life-or-death dilemma for herself.
  4. Weaknesses can stem from anything, even natural resources. Story world flaws can stem from problems such as discrimination, persecution, censorship, and genocide. Weaknesses can also originate from situations like natural resources and who controls them. Below is the write-up for Salt: A World History:

“In his fifth work of nonfiction, Mark Kurlansky turns his attention to a common household item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions.”

Bet you’ll never look at salt the same way again.

  1. The story world and its inhabitants should react with credible response to the chaos effect. It’s hard for readers to suspend disbelief when they don’t feel grounded in your story. Your characters should respond appropriately to the flaws in their world. We’ve all watched movies where the character’s over-the-top reactions have killed our suspension of disbelief. Writers, don’t let this happen to you.


Interested in World Building?  I’ll be teaching a class for those who are currently writing or have an idea for a story. We’ll discuss novels in which the story world springs to life for the reader. Participants will leave class with a story bible template to commence or complete their story world. Email to register. More information at

Workshops Aplenty: Short Story & World Building

At last week’s Twin Cities’ Sisters in Crime meeting, noted mystery writers Jessie Chandler and Pat Dennis walked members through the “do’s and don’t’s” of writing a successful short story.  Below are a few highlights from the workshop:

Jessie Chandler and Pat Dennis
Jessie Chandler and Pat Dennis
  1. A short story isn’t a seven-layer cake, it’s a cupcake.
    I like the visual of the short story as a few bites of delicious storytelling.  Don’t overload your story with too many characters or scenes.  I’ve noticed that the more I write short stories, the shorter they get.    In a short story―unlike in the bedroom―less really is more (lol).
  2. A short story is a watercolor not an oil painting.
    Paint a portrait of character, mood, atmosphere and setting with brushstrokes, not a trowel.  One thing I’ve heard repeatedly is that you don’t have to do all of the work for your reader.  Letting the reader fill in some of the blanks in your story makes it a more rewarding experience for them.
  3. Start your story with a bang and end it with an epiphany or “aha” moment.
    I think this is good advice for writing a story of any length.
  4. Avoid common mistakes.
    These include sloppy writing, poor grammar, and not following submission guidelines.  While each publisher will have their own guidelines, I found a link where you can download the standard format for a manuscript at  *You’re welcome.*
  5. More common mistakes.
    Pat pointed out that if you have any questions about your work, you should listen to your inner voice and figure out what’s not working in your story.  Both Jessie and Pat mentioned a big no-no for writers is not taking constructive criticism to heart even if they’ve asked for it.  And please thank everyone who reads your work―whether you agree with their comments or not.  In this business, it never hurts to be professional and polite.

The timing of the workshop was perfect, coming as it did on the heels of the announcement that the Twin Cities chapter is now accepting submissions for its upcoming anthology, Dark Side of the Loon. As usual, Jessie and Pat were both amazing and Michael Allan Mallory’s handout was super-helpful.  Thanks to everyone for a great workshop and a great night.

TC SinC Short Story Workshop Attendees
TC SinC Short Story Workshop Attendees


Interested in World Building?  I’ll be teaching a class this weekend for all genres of writing and for people who are currently writing a story or have an idea for a story. In class, we will discuss stories in which the world really comes alive for the reader. Everyone will leave class with a story bible template to help them jump start or finish their story world.  Email me at to register.  More information at:

Top Ten Reasons I Love the Writers’ Police Academy

I heard about the Writers’ Police Academy from my Sister in Crime, Jessie Chandler, and decided to go this year. It was awesome. Here’s why:

  1. Girls’ Road Trip. On Thursday morning, I took my first road trip in years (sans dog, child, and husband) with two up-and-coming crime writers, Michelle Kubitz and Emily Gorman. Although we had spoken at several Twin Cities Sisters in Crime meetings, it was on this trip that I got to know Shelley and Emily and their writing.
    1. Road Trip
  2. Beer and Cheese. You can’t shake a stick in Wisconsin without hitting a can of beer or a block of cheese. On Thursday afternoon, we ate lunch at the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company in Wausau. I drank a beer in something called a crowler, which is a growler in a can. You learn something new every day.
    2A. Crowler
    Supposedly, authentic cheese curds will make a squeaky noise when you bite into them. Did ours do that? I’m not sure because we inhaled them in less than five minutes’ time.
    2B. Cheese Curds
  3. Sisters and Misters. In Green Bay, we realized we were not alone; there were Sisters and Misters everywhere. At the Sisters in Crime table, we introduced ourselves to President Leslie Budewitz and Debra Goldstein. It was a nice way to kick off Thursday night.
    3. Sisters in Crime
  4. Special Ops Show and Tell. At the hands-on demonstrations, we spent some time watching the K-9 officer and his police dog. Then we spoke at length with an officer on the bomb squad team who gave us insight into the challenges his team faces on a regular basis. I came away with some great ideas for my novel-in-progress, a police procedural set in Australia. We wrapped up the event with a photo on this super-humongous bear cat.
    4. Bear Cat
  5. Emergency Driving. On Friday morning, I took a “crash course” on Emergency Driving with driving partners, Leslie Budewitz and Karen Heines, and our instructor, Colleen Belongeo. Part of what makes the WPA great is the opportunity to take note of how cops talk, walk, and hold themselves. Our instructors (including Colleen and John Flannery) were so incredibly personable, intelligent and self-assured that I’m sure they’ll end up in many of the writers’ stories. (I know they’re going to end up in mine).
    5B. Emergency Driving w Colleen
    Among other things, Colleen taught us the proper way to round corners at high speed. The experience definitely made me think about what those high-speed chases would be like for my story’s protagonists, a Latina constable and her partner.
    5A. Emerg Driving all
  6. Peeps. On Friday and Saturday, we hung out with Doug Dorow and Carol Huss, fellow crime writers from Minnesota. It was fun to review the classes we’d taken and to discuss our stories. We also met crime writers from Milwaukee, Toronto, Vancouver, Virginia Beach, and Seattle. I feel fortunate to have forged connections with all of these incredible people.
    6. MN Writers
  7. Diversity. I had no idea that Green Bay skirts Oneida tribal land. As a writer of color, it was very powerful to see diverse police officers in action at the Writers’ Police Academy. All ages, sexes, and races were represented. Also, as you can see, the “eye candy” quotient was very high. Just sayin’.
    7. Diversity Looks Good
  8. Real Cops for Real Writers. Retired Madison police officer, Paul Smith, tugged at my heartstrings when he explained how he developed PTSD following two fatal shootings (he was cleared in both incidents). I can’t imagine a more stressful job than that of a police officer. While the high-stress situations police officers face make for great fiction, the actual toll stress takes on officers can be devastating.Trying to create the mental health support needed for officers is an overwhelming task. I have been following the Victoria Police’s attempts to create a safety net for its officers in Australia following a review last year which stated the department’s “suck it up” management style was its greatest weakness. At one point, Smith considered suicide but was able to turn his life around and now works as a PTSD counselor and law enforcement trainer. The session was very moving, and Smith’s service dog had me at hello (shhh, don’t tell my black Lab, Sinjin). Here we are together―and in love.
    8. We're In Love
  9. Tami Hoag and Long Gun: Live Fire. What can I say about this unbelievable experience? Shooting a .223 patrol rifle. With Tami Hoag at my side.
    *Mic drop.*

    Tami was the keynote speaker at the banquet on Saturday night. She was so open and honest with us; it was a speech I won’t soon forget.
    9. Jessica & Tami Hoag
  10. Dancing. Whaaat? Dancing in Green Bay, Home of the Packers? Yes, yes, and yes. On Friday night, we danced with the enemy (Packer fans) at The Stadium View Bar & Grille, but kept our identities as Vikings fans a secret.
    10A. Stadium View Bar & Grille
    Then we boogied down on Saturday night with our new WPA friends (including Jill and Colleen “The Rock” Belongeo) at Purcell’s Lounge until we shut that mother down.
    10B. Dancing at Purcell's

Overall, I had an amazing time at the Writers’ Police Academy. Many thanks to everyone who made this such an incredible experience for attendees. I will be practicing my dance moves in preparation for next year’s conference. See you in 2017!

Hugh Holton Critique Program opens

I won the Hugh Holton prize last year.  The feedback from my mentor, Ted Hertel, has proved to be invaluable as I begin revising my first draft, and just winning the prize has been a great morale booster.  I hope many of you will consider taking part in the program this year.

Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 6 or The End

Last week we met in Plymouth at the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Communications Facility (ECF).  The ECF houses both the data center and the PSAP or public-safety answering point (ie: 911 call center). The $32 million building, which opened in 2014, is an awe-inspiring hunk of concrete.  The PSAP area of the facility is built to withstand winds of 150 mph or the equivalent of an F3 tornado.  The data center area, which also houses technical services, can withstand winds of 250 mph or the equivalent of an F5 tornado.

Note to the big, bad wolf: You can huff and you can puff, but you probably aren’t going to blow this house down.

Big bad wolf Source: Walt Disney Co.
Big bad wolf Source: Walt Disney Co.

As you might expect, PSAPs, or public-safety answering points, are call centers that answer calls to an emergency telephone number for police, firefighting, and ambulance services.  Plymouth’s PSAP is one of a handful in Minnesota, answering emergency 911 dispatch calls for most of Hennepin County (excluding Minneapolis).  The PSAP answers over 600,000 calls per year for 37 communities, 21 fire departments, and 23 law enforcement agencies.

911 Dispatch Center Source: HCSO
911 Dispatch Center Source: HCSO

Information sent to and from Minnesota’s PSAPs is delivered through the allied radio matrix emergency response (ARMER) program which was developed after 9/11.  ARMER is the infrastructure for emergency responders within the State of Minnesota.

ARMER services the radio communications needs of almost every city, county, state agency, tribal government and non-government public safety entity across Minnesota.  The only part of Minnesota that’s not covered by one of ARMER’s 328 radio towers (due to the terrain in that region) is the northwest corner of the state which includes Clay, Norman, Lake of the Woods, Marshall, and Red Lake counties.

ARMER map Source: MN Dept. of Public Safety

We tour the 911 dispatch area and see a moving video which includes the quote, “Just because you don’t see my face, doesn’t mean I’m not saving your life.”  We listen to calls coming in, and watch as the location and type of each call flashes across a flat screen on the back wall: a found pet, a domestic disturbance, a missing person, even a shooting.

911 Dispatcher Source: HCSO
911 Dispatcher Source: HCSO

Interesting things we learn:

  1. Hennepin County residents can call 911 for any type of emergency and will be connected to the right department.
  2. If you call 911 by accident please stay on the line. Don’t just hang up.
  3. 911 dispatchers categorize each call that comes in from first to fourth priority. A burglary report is an example of a fourth priority call.
  4. If someone’s missing, the police need a search warrant to find them. However, if an officer has a life-threatening situation, 911 can override a court order. Life-threatening emergencies include Amber Alerts, domestics in progress, and a verified suicide threat.
  5. 911 can get a geographic location and address for landline phones right away. With cell phones, they can triangulate and identify the area where the call originated, but not the exact location.

Our time at the Hennepin County Citizen Law Enforcement Academy is coming to an end (sniff, sniff) and it’s been an amazing experience.  I’ve learned so much more than I’ll ever be able to write in this blog, but I’m sure the information will come in handy as I continue to write my novel, The Rip.  As Midge’s husband, Tim, said to Sheriff Stanek, “Why is the academy so good?  It’s almost too good.”  I agree with Tim; the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office rocks.

This graduation cake takes the cake Source: HCSO
This graduation cake takes the cake Source: HCSO

Here are some photos of my Sisters in Crime friends, Midge Bubany and Kristin Lerstrom, Rose Stanley-Gilbert and me at the graduation party.  Standing next to us are Sheriff Richard W. Stanek (left) and Chief Deputy Mike Carlson (right):

Midge Bubany Source: HCSO
Midge Bubany Source: HCSO
Kristin Lerstrom Source: HCSO
Kristin Lerstrom Source: HCSO
Rose Stanley-Gilbert Source: HCSO
Rose Stanley-Gilbert Source: HCSO
Jessica grad
Jessica Ellis Laine Source: HCSO

Ways to get involved with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office:

  1. Sign up for the Fall 2015 Citizen’s Academy and learn more about law enforcement.  Sheriff Stanek said our friends and family would have preferred sign up for the Fall 2015 academy which starts in September.
  2. Become a Special Deputy.
  3. Join the Community Advisory Board the next time there’s an opening.
  4. Volunteer at the HCSO’s MN State Fair booth. Here’s some information on last year’s event.

I would like to thank Sheriff Richard W. Stanek, Chief Deputy Mike Carlson, and Sergeant Jennifer Johnson, the driving force behind the academy and the recipient of a 2014 Award of Merit from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.  Sergeant Johnson told us we were her favorite group yet, and I think she was telling the truth because let’s face it — we were pretty great.  😄

Two other individuals who made the academy a wonderful experience for everyone are Deputies Mary Lelivelt and Kara Vanderkooi.  Several others (too numerous to name) have been extremely generous with their time and expertise.

Mil gracias.  Many thanks to you all.

Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 5

Last week’s class was held at the Law Enforcement Education Center on the campus of Hennepin Technical College in Brooklyn Park.  We’re in for another jam-packed evening, meeting with members of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Community Engagement Team (CET) and representatives of the Professional Standards Division which includes Personnel and Range Instructors.

Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Education Center source:
Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Education Center source:

The highlight of the evening is the time we spend with the HCSO’s Range Instructors.  At the firing range, we’re given shooting vests, ear muffs, and protective eyewear.  I fuss over the eyewear because my fading eyesight is a product of old age: I’m farsighted but can’t see anything up close.  To wear glasses or not to wear glasses, that is the question.

Police Firing Range
Police Firing Range source:

I decide not to wear glasses.  When it’s my turn to shoot the handgun, a standard-issue Smith & Wesson M&P.40, the hunky instructor tells me to aim for the grey rectangle in the center of the person-shaped target.  Holding the gun (which is surprisingly heavy), my hands shake like FBI agent Clarice Starling’s as she follows serial killer, Jame Gumb, into that basement of horrors in The Silence of the Lambs. 

Silence of the Lambs Source: Orion Pictures
The Silence of the Lambs Source: Orion Pictures

Between my carpal tunnel, not lining up the target with the handgun sight properly, and frankly just not knowing what the $&@! I’m doing, I land one shot out of five in the grey rectangle.  One bullet hits the target’s head, another hits the cardboard outside the target’s body, and a third bullet hits the target’s groin area.  Ouch.

While my dreams of being drafted as an elite sniper are dashed, it turns out fellow Twin Cities’ Sister in Crime member, Theresa Weir is something of a natural: all five of her shots hit within the grey rectangle.  Her sharp shooting skills lead to some friendly teasing on Facebook.  “I’ll remember not to piss you off,” one person jokes.

My aim is a little better with the rifle because it has a scope.  All of my shots hit the target’s stomach. “You all hit there,” the instructor says, taking the wind out of my sails.

Interesting fact #1: While the military tests first-to-market guns and rifles, the HCSO tests first-to-market bullets from Alliant Techsystems in Anoka.

After the firing range, we head over to a video simulation lab.  These video simulations are used to train new recruits and offer a variety of potentially lethal scenarios: a domestic violence call, an unusual traffic stop, and a hold up-in-progress at a convenience store.

Video simulation Source: Jim Wilson, New York Times
Video simulation Source: Jim Wilson, New York Times

My scenario involves the convenience store, where my partner and I point our simulation guns at the robber who faces the cash register.  We shout things at him like, “Sir, move now!  Move now!  Put your hands up!  Hands up!  Look at me! Look at me!  Look at me!  Why won’t you look at me?”  Before we can yell out anything else, the robber turns around and shoots us both dead.  Cagney and Lacey, we are not.

Cagney and Lacey Source: Rex
Cagney and Lacey Source: Rex

It’s a scary predicament, being a cop in a potentially life-threatening situation.  Some experts believe more training, especially in tactics to defuse high-stress situations, could help both officers and suspects.  A recent study conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum concluded that the majority of training hours were spent on firearms and defensive tactics rather than on de-escalation and crisis intervention.

We’ve heard several people say, “You don’t read about HCSO officers in the papers,” and it’s true, you don’t.  On average, HCSO employees receive twice as many training hours as other police departments.  Does the additional training make a difference?  It certainly can’t hurt.

The training instructors also teach the new recruits how to read the Cooper color code of the tactical (or combat) mindset.  As one instructor explains, understanding your mindset during a tactical situation can be more important than your firearm or Taser skills.  Your mindset can literally make the difference between life and death.

Cooper Color Codes of Awareness Source:
Cooper Color Codes of Awareness Source:

There are five colors in the color code:

  1. White: Living in oblivion. Not a good place to be if something’s going down.
  2. Yellow: Slightly observant. Okay, but not ideal.
  3. Orange: Heightened awareness. The “sweet spot” on the color code.
  4. Red: High alert. An imminent threat has been identified.
  5. Black: Combat debrief. Your mindset after something goes down, processing what just happened. It should not be your mindset before something goes down or while something’s going down.

After the video simulation, we watch a Taser demonstration. The instructors assure us that it’s very uncommon for someone to die after being Tased.    Interesting fact #2: Even people with pacemakers can be safely Tased, so grandpas beware.

I could write a boring paragraph about how a Taser works, but there’s no need since I found this awesome graphic:

How a Taser Works Source: James Hilston, Post Gazette
How a Taser Works Source: James Hilston, Post Gazette

Interesting fact #3: The instructors say that the worst part of being Tased is pulling the fish hooks out of your skin after the Taser is fired.  Tasers eject standard fish hooks (size six, I think).

This week, the academy will come to an end (sniff).  So far, it’s been an excellent adventure.   I’m looking forward to learning how 911 works and wrapping things up with our celebration party.

Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 4

Last week, my friend Rose and I battled rush hour traffic to arrive at the Sheriff’s Crime Lab in Minneapolis on time.  While I’m pumped to visit the crime lab, I have to admit I gave up on the television show CSI years ago after Director Gil Grissom fell in love (or lust or whatever) with a dominatrix named Lady Heather (what the ???).

Gil Grissom & Lady Heather Source: CSI
Gil Grissom & Lady Heather Source: CSI

With 30 minutes to kill, Rose and I hit Hubert’s Bar for a quick drink.  It’s karaoke night and we’re treated to one-hit wonders from the 70s, 80s, and 90s as interpreted by several inebriated individuals.  I decide to sing along with one contestant who’s belting out “What’s Going On” by 4 Non Blondes because the lyrics really capture my thoughts that evening:

And I say hey…And I say hey what’s goin’ on

And I say hey… I said hey what’s goin’ on

And I scream from the top of my lungs

What’s goin’ on

At Hubert’s?

Some pretty scary karaoke, that’s what.

Rose at Hubert's Source:
Rose at Hubert’s Source:

Ears bleeding, we head over to the Sheriff’s Crime Lab which provides forensic support to over 35 local, state, and federal agencies.  The crime lab’s departments (called sections) include Crime Scene, Evidence, Firearm and Tool Mark Examination, Latent Print, and Biology/DNA.

Director Scott Giles kicks off the evening with an overview of the crime lab.  Interesting fact #1: Over 50% of the crimes investigated by the lab relate to property crimes.  After he says this I think, I wish I’d known about the crime lab when my car got broken into in Uptown.  Adding insult to injury, the thieves took my spare change and useless loyalty cards but left all of my CDs behind.  Hey, I have good taste in music.  Really.  (See section on karaoke above.)

Crime Scene Tech Source: Star Tribune
Crime Scene Tech Source: Star Tribune

Working on property crimes related to cars, homes, and businesses, the crime lab has identified several offenders through their forensic databases.  Interesting fact #2: one of the largest and most-used forensic databases is called CODIS.  It houses DNA profiles for over 14 million offenders.

One of the scientists explains that property crime offenders are often involved in other types of crimes.  “For some criminals, break-ins are almost like their day job,” she says.  By identifying the perpetrators of property crimes, the crime lab can help law enforcement agencies to get violent offenders off our streets.

The highlight of the evening is our visit to the Biology/DNA section where we learn how DNA is extracted.  Interesting fact #3: DNA evidence needs to be kept in a dark, cool and dry environment but does not need to be refrigerated.  In the lab, DNA samples are put into test tubes and a reagent is added to amplify the DNA sample.  The test tube is then put into a machine called a thermocycler which is cooled down to four degrees Celsius so that the DNA will replicate itself.  Interesting fact #4: DNA will not replicate if it’s one centigrade above four degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, we aren’t able to enter the laboratory for fear of contamination but Suzanne Weston-Kirkegaard, the DNA technical lead, more than makes up for this by sharing on-the-job tales.  One of her best stories involves the Corn Dog Caper where a small-time burglar smashed his way into an office building and then went bananas.  Like a deranged Goldilocks, he ate food from the employees’ communal fridge, leaving behind a half-eaten corn dog as well as a large sample of DNA which led to his identification and arrest.

The Corn Dog in Question Source: HCSO
The infamous corn dog. Source: HCSO

Suzanne tells us that cases like these aren’t as uncommon as you’d think.  Apparently, some burglars like to leave mementos.  Like bodily fluid mementos.  I won’t get into specifics, but let’s just say I’ll never look at the bottle of ketchup in my fridge the same way again.  Yuk.

Ketchup Source: Ildar Sagdejev
Ketchup Source: Ildar Sagdejev

Next week, there will be tasers and rifles and guns, oh my!

Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 3

Lethal Weapon moview poster Source: Wikipedia
Lethal Weapon movie poster Source: Wikipedia

Last week’s class took us off the edge of the map and into Brooklyn Park where Hennepin County’s Enforcement Services is headquartered.

Little did I know we were in for an action-packed evening of the “Lethal Weapon” kind, with demonstrations by the Emergency Services Department (ESD), Special Operations Unit (SOU) and Volunteer Services Department (VSD).

The Emergency Services Department (ESD) is comprised of patrol, water patrol, transport, special operations, and the K-9 unit.  The patrol unit does pretty much what you’d think it would do: emergency response and the servicing of civil papers and warrants.  Interesting fact #1: By law, arrest warrants must be served after 7am.  Many are served at 7:01am.  “So, if you’re a criminal, set your alarm clock before 7am,” an academy classmate says.  After a short pause, the police officer who’s been speaking to us replies, “Yeah, I don’t think the homes we go to have clocks.”  Well alright, then…

The water patrol unit is staffed to a large extent by volunteers and is tasked with law enforcement on the waterways and with patrolling 104 lakes and three rivers.  Minnesotans, can you name all three rivers in Hennepin County?  I got two: the Mississippi and the Minnesota.  The third is the Crow.

During the summer, one boat is permanently stationed at Lake Minnetonka to deal with its drunken horde of weekend warriors.  The officers said they do a lot more educating of the public than enforcing of the laws.  Interesting fact #2: After two hours, a water patrol search and rescue will morph into recovery mode.

The Special Operations Unit (SOU) includes the Emergency Management Team, Hennepin County Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Tactical Response Team, Emergency Services Unit (ESU), Special Response, and Critical Infrastructure Protection Patrols.

Weapon of Mass Destruction           Source:

The WMD team deals with biological, radiological, and chemical attacks.  They hold training sessions at high-risk targets including the Mall of America, Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, and the Mississippi River and transportation targets like buses and the metro system.

They wear hazmat suits with external air tanks (similar to ones used in scuba diving) or else suits with built-in, recycled air units.  The WMD officer says the recycled-air hazmat suit makes you feel like you’re suffocating.

Me as the Pillsbury Doughboy with my husband, Harlan

I can relate to this feeling of suffocation, having once been paid $75 in graduate school to dress up like the Pillsbury Doughboy.  I will never forget the few seconds before the nasty recycled air kicked in and I could finally breathe.

The highlight of the evening is our visit with the Emergency Services Unit (ESU) which is basically the SWAT team.  ESU is involved in hostage rescue, barricaded suspect situations, and high-risk warrant service.  The SWAT team is involved in about 65 to 70 operations each year, mainly in Minneapolis.  “You should smell the testosterone when they come back from serving a warrant,” one of the female officers says, making the ESU team blush.

SWAT Team                                                  Source: Kennedy Space Center

We get to look at their cool gear which includes guns, shields, and vests.  One of the rifles is specially equipped with foam bullets to mark a suspect with paint and bring them down with minimal injury.  “We aim for the big, meaty parts,” one ESU officer says.  “Backs, butts, and thighs are best.”

They let us pick up their riot shields. One is built to stop handguns and the other, rifles.  The handgun riot shield weighs about the same as my son, a 30-pound toddler.  “Now, don’t throw out your back picking up that shield. I don’t want you to call in sick to work tomorrow,” one of the officers says to me.  I give him a look.  I’m a stay-at-home mom: My job is 24/7 and unfortunately, I can’t call in sick.  Ever.

SWAT Team Source: The New Yorker
Source: The New Yorker

The other riot shield made to stop rifle bullets weighs at least 50 pounds.  It’s crazy heavy.  “Who carries this?”  I ask.  “There’s one guy on our team who can hold it the entire length of a raid.  He’s huge.  Otherwise, we take turns holding it,” one officer says.  “And we use both hands to hold it,” another one adds.  “I don’t.  I just use one hand,” a third officer says.  The other officers just raise their eyebrows at him.  It takes a lot of cojones to be a part of the ESU team: I’m sure some braggadocio is par for the course.

We’re also given the opportunity to try on their heavy green flak vests.  I’m eyeing one of the vests when an officer says, “Careful.  You’ll mess up your hair.”  It’s like he’s waved a red flag under my nose.  I lunge for the vest.  “I’ll take that,” I say. Someone from the Sheriff’s Office takes a photograph of me.  In my mind, I looked like this:

SWAT team member                            Source: Wikipedia

But I’m pretty sure I looked like this instead:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles           Source: Rolling Stone

Stay tuned: this week, we’re going to tour the Crime Lab.

Who are you, you, you? I really wanna know….

The AWP Conference: Is It For Crime Writers?

AWP conference
AWP 15 Book Fair Source: AWP Twitter

About 13,000 writers flocked to Minneapolis last week for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference.  I knew the conference catered to the literary (or as one presenter put it, “boring”) crowd, but since it included many workshops and a gigantic book fair and was being held here in town at a fairly reasonable cost, I decided to give it a go.  Plus, its 24/7 event schedule gave me a valid excuse to stay in a hotel for two nights and temporarily ditch my day-to-day responsibilities as mother and wife.  Basically, this conference had me at hello but was it a worthwhile event for a writer of crime fiction?

If you want to know more about the conference-at-large, check out Peter Mountford’s hilarious and definitive article.  Here are some tips for fellow crime writers who are considering a future AWP conference.  Note:  At some point, you’ll have to admit to the literary fiction attendees that you are a *gasp* commercial fiction writer:

  • Don’t overschedule yourself. I attended 12 workshops on craft (about 4 per day) which gave me time to walk the book fair, eat lunch (the lines were super-long at the convention center), and avoid the feeling that my head was going to explode from the knowledge dump each workshop provided.
  • Skip sessions led by magazine or book editors. You already know how to get published: write something great, research the publication and editor, and submit proofed work in the exact format requested. I just saved you about 2 to 3 hours at the conference. You’re welcome.
  • Pick workshops that will boost your areas of weakness as a writer. As a first-time mystery novelist, I went to sessions that addressed plot, time and structure, genre fiction, crime fiction, noir fiction, violence, and how to write a sex scene. There were gems to be had in all of these workshops:
    • Plot is Character: Make $h!t happen. If you have a good voice, you can fix your plot.
    • Learning and Teaching Plot: Plot that feels inevitable but surprising stems from an understanding of how particular people behave in a particular situation.
    • Sex Scenes by Women, About Women: How do people secretly relate to one another when the doors are closed and people aren’t wearing their public faces?
    • What’s Wrong with Writing Genre?: Write what you know with a twist.
    • Substance as Style: What Noir Can Teach Us: In noir, the protagonist actively participates in his own demise by the choices he makes. As someone who’s writing what I call “medium-boiled seaside noir”, I love this definition.
  • Introduce Yourself to the Panelists. They want to meet you. Really. I finally mustered up the courage to do this on Friday afternoon with fellow Sisters in Crime members, Cathlene Buchholz and Sherry Roberts. We introduced ourselves to crime fiction panelists/novelists, Michael Kardos and Lori Rader-Day, who’d been signing books the night before at Once Upon a Crime mystery bookstore with Jessie Chandler. Both Michael and Lori were very generous with their time, and we were able to snap this photo with Lori before saying goodbye.
From left: Jessica Ellis Laine, Cathlene Buchholz, Lori Rader-Day, & Sherry Roberts
From left: Jessica Ellis Laine, Cathlene Buchholz, Lori Rader-Day, & Sherry Roberts
  • Attend Author Readings. I am kicking myself for not attending readings by Shannon Olson, Cheryl Strayed, and T.C. Boyle. On Saturday afternoon, I closed out the conference with authors Ana Mendez and Dani Shapiro who were interviewed by a moderator and later read from their work. It. Was. Amazing.
  • Go To After-Hours Events.
    On Thursday night, I went to the Loft Literary Center’s Awesome AWP Party with two writerly friends, Ann Bremer and Kayla Gray, who like me have taken several writing classes at the Loft. We met Peter Mountford there, author of the aforementioned AWP conference article, events curator for the Hugo House writing center (Seattle’s version of the Loft), member of the Seattle Seven writing group which includes Erik Larson (be still, my beating heart), and taker of the photo below.
From left: Kayla Gray, Jessica Ellis Laine, & Ann Bremer
From left: Kayla Gray, Jessica Ellis Laine, & Ann Bremer

Later that evening, Ann and I attended the AWP Dance Party at the Hilton Minneapolis which was hysterical for reasons too numerous to mention here.  Remember that movie White Men Can’t Jump?  Well, they can’t dance, either.

Friday night, Ann and I switched it up and went to Think Piece Publishing’s Pints and Prose event at Kieran’s Irish Pub with fellow mystery writer, Tes Brown, and her husband, Mike.  We heard stories and music by Julie Barton, Andy Steiner, and Honeydogs frontman, Adam Levy.  Janet Burroway (author of Writing Fiction) read from her memoir, Losing Tim which recounts the suicide of her sonI was reduced to tears within seconds.  Tes came to my rescue with a handful of paper napkins.  It was a beautiful and thought-provoking night.

Long story long, crime writers: The AWP conference isn’t geared towards genre writers, but it was fun and I learned a thing or two.  I’d definitely consider attending another one if I could drive (instead of fly) there again.

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